Keeping the Positive (or Trying to)

Keep it Positive

This post is about me.

But it might be about you, too.

I’ve been noticing a tendency of mine in Rhizomatic Learning that makes me feel a little off-kilter. I’m noticing that as Dave Cormier introduces intriguing concepts to be considered (this past week, it was the idea of “content”; the previous week, it was about what “counts” in learning), I find myself settling in as a critic, picking apart the idea itself with a negative lens.

For example, with “content,” I wrote a bunch of tweets and posts about how pigeonholed schools are becoming with specific disciplines, about how teaching is in “boxes” of content-area learning. When the theme was “counting,” I gravitated towards criticism of the testing industry and data collection. When the concept to be considered was about “subjective learning,” I was thinking of the cultural baggage that people bring to their learning spaces or teaching spaces.

What’s up with that? Why all the negative, dude? (that was my inner voice)

This realization dawned on me as I was writing a comment this morning at a friend’s blog post and it occurred to me that I have been looking at all these issues from the “deficit model” of learning — looking for what was wrong — instead of being active with the idea of what might work and how to make it work even better. Perhaps this default into criticism of a structure like education is human nature, made larger by our voices in social media spaces.

One of the best practices of good teaching, however, is to avoid the deficit model in our students. Accentuate the positive, and help a student find a path forward. Support them. Scaffold. Remain optimistic. It doesn’t mean I am going to suddenly get on the bandwagon for publishing companies or policy makers. There’s a limit.

But, let me strive to “keep the positive” going forward, without losing the critical element of analysis. I think there is a fine line there, one not easily tread if you are trying to say something important. We don’t want to hold back in what we say just because we are in “cheerleader” mode. I’ll be striving for some more balance in considering topics with Rhizomatic Learning. I’ll try.

Peace (in the think),

One Week In: Some Stats on RhizoRadio

RhizoRadio Stats

I was curious to see if our RhizoRadioShow (part of the Rhizomatic Learning community) was getting any play in the week since its official release (after a few days of “soft release”), and I realized that Soundcloud kicks out data on files (of course, it does), so the screenshot above is a snapshot of sorts. There’s a limit of information because I have not gone “Pro Unlimited” and I suspect that the podcast get more plays while embedded into websites such as mine. I think these are stats from listening within Soundcloud itself (but I am not sure about that).

Some basic stats of the file, which has been “live” for less than a week now:

  • 185 listens
  • 12 “likes”
  • 29 comments (including mine)

I think the comments are most interesting and continue to invite folks (that’s you, dear reader) to add another layer to the radio show with comments and annotations. When we talk about pushing into the digital writing terrain, adding text on top of a sound file is one way to be doing this, I think.

I also enjoy looking at the countries of origin of listeners, which offers a peek at how diverse the Rhizomatic Learning Community really is, although clearly the US is most represented in listens. Of course, take a listen to the podcast itself, and you’ll hear our diversity in our accents. That’s just one of many things to love about this kind of collaborative project.

Peace (under the hood),


The Anatomy of a #Rhizo15 ‘Close Read’ Comic

wicked close reading

Allow me a brief detour here …. as some of you may know, I like to make comics as a way to zero in on blog posts and tweets in online learning adventures that I am part of. It began with the Making Learning Connected MOOC, then extended into Connected Courses, and now is part of my routine with Rhizomatic Learning. My aim is to find the anchor or kernel of idea that intrigues me, and extend it out in a visual way with a comic.

My hope is that the writers of the material don’t get offended, and I try very hard to make sure the satire or humor is not directed at the writers themselves. But humor and satire are definitely part of my intention, as is the hope that I might, in my own way, open up the doors to the power of comics as a medium of expression and to inject a little levity into some very serious pedagogical discussions.

Plus, I find it fun.

So, I thought I might walk through the process of how I found a typical post, what I discovered as I read, and how the comic itself eventually came together. I’ll use Will Richardson as my example, if only because I have followed Will for years, read and been inspired by his books, and suspect he won’t mind if I reference his blog post that led to a comic. (Thanks, Will, in advance).

Rhizo comics

Will entered the Rhizo15 stream a few weeks in, which is fine and “right on time” but that can be disorientating to the late-comer, I think, as you try to figure out, what the heck are they talking about? What can I contribute? Where is this thing going? Will’s post — entitled Learning with #Rhizo15 — was thoughtful, as usual, and centered on the difficulty of finding your footing in a “course” like Rhizomatic Learning, where there is no set curriculum map, no established center space, no direction on your learning other than what you bring to the table for yourself.

I was really intrigued by his list of things that can make an open learning experience “hard.”

Will writes:

  • It’s hard because no one’s telling me what to read or when to read it.
  • It’s hard because there’s no one text, no central collection place for ALL the associated thinking with the course.
  • It’s hard because I worry about what I’m missing.
  • It’s hard because there are no due dates.
  • It’s hard because I don’t know if I’m doing it “right.”
  • It’s hard because despite the fact that I’ve been learning online informally for almost 15 years, I still have a lot of “old school” baggage built in when I hear the “course.” (By the way, if you want a lesson in how long it takes to unlearn old habits, watch this.)

That line about “old school baggage” resonated with me and I decided that was the line that I would use to represent this idea of our expectations of a learning experience clashing with an open educational space, and how our brain seeks to make sense of something new even as the old framework creates a certain sort of tension.

So, this is the line I took from Will (and added a word — word — for context):

I still have a lot of “old school” baggage built in when I hear the (word) “course.”

I use different comic platforms at different times, but I was on my iPad and so turned to my favorite comic app called Comics Head, which gives a lot of flexibility for creating comics. I also use a site called Stripgenerator on the computer, or Bitstrips, sometimes, too. I’ve also been know to pull up Dave’s Rage Maker Comics from time to time. I guess I am all over the place, but each gives a different feel and different compositional possibilities.

With Will’s words in hand, I started to consider what the comic would look like and what I wanted to say. You see, my aim with comics is to add some of my own perspective — to riff off the original writer, where the comic is the comment.

I thought that a background of a traditional college would make sense, with someone (a stand-in for Will, but really a stand-in for all of us) at the front door, wondering where the classroom is and referencing Professor Dave. (Hint: there is no classroom, and Dave Cormier is the facilitator but he lets things go their own way). Will’s quote is plastered up on the wall, like graffiti or something. (Hide the paint can, Will). I actually struggled with where to put the text, from a design standpoint, because the background is a bit too busy. The wall seemed ripe for defacing, so to speak.

I struggled with how to represent the open quality of #Rhizo15 in contrast to the university. At first, I had student faces in the windows, heckling the visitor, like those old guys from the Muppets. I didn’t like that, though, as it felt a bit mean. I don’t want to be mean-spirited here.

Then, I thought: what if the gathering of the Rhizomatic Learning Swarm (ie, those working together in the community, with the “swarm” term coming from folks like Keith Hamon) is outside the frame of view itself, and the text boxes are calling the visitor to avoid the building altogether? We don’t ever “see” the #Rhizo15 learners .. which is mostly true, anyway. We are defined by our writing and our media in social media spaces.

I then realized that a cool juxtaposition would be the element of an elementary school — the playfulness of a playground, and the metaphor of a sandbox, and the open invitation to come join in the fun and exploration. I like that dichotomy of the friendly invitation to play and explore and the rather imposing image of the school building.  The final touch was the labeling of the building as “Typical University” to indicate how untypical the Rhizomatic Learning experience is (but should not be).

Here are a few more comics from the weekend:

Rhizo cimics

Rhizo cimics

Peace (under the hood),

PS — This comic/close read anatomy exercise is inspired by the YouShow project a few months ago, when Alan Levine and others were pushing folks to make their process and thinking more visible.

Jumping Time Zones: The Conversation Never Ends

Rhizo comic

There was an interesting discussion the other day on Twitter with folks in the Rhizomatic Learning community about the concept of “time” in an online learning environment. I hadn’t quite noticed just how important a role that time zones play in online interactions, mostly, I suspect, because in past experiences, I was in the midst of so many United States-centered educators. I lost perspective, coming from an America-centered view of the world (sorry, friends.) Rhizo15 is a real intriguing mix of people from around the world, and so time zones clash a lot.

Threads of thoughts that get started during the day often get picked up in the night.

That’s an interesting component here, how one conversation or discussion thread starts in one time zone, in one part of the world, and then leaps forward or across time to another part of the world, and there is a definite lag at times (I am just waking up. You are just going to bed.) There are also those moments when our time zones overlap.

There are definite benefits to this time zone element.

First, of course, there is the global perspectives that get pulled into the mix. It helps avoid the echo chamber effect — of hearing from others what you already believe because you run in the same circles as the same people. Mixing in with different people brings different voices, different cultural views, different ideas on learning. It’s hard to get that from your building-based Professional Development.

Second, it gives you time to think. If I write something and someone from Australia or the Middle East or Europe responds, it will likely be something I read the next day, or much later in the day. My response back also will have some “lag time” and that is a much-appreciated pause in the action — a chance to reflect before the response.

Finally, there is a distinct ebb and flow of discussions, and while some threads do seem to get lost in the mix, most get picked up and developed, and the recursive nature of the discussions is like a loop tape that you listen to, where each listen brings something new. As folks gather into the hubs of discussion (be it Twitter, blog posts, G+, or Facebook or wherever), the threads get extended over time.

I really noticed this time zone differential with the editing and collecting of files for the Rhizomatic Radio project. I kept wanting to move ahead, move ahead, move ahead … and often had to wait for others to wake up, read my notes and get me files. I had to be patient. But, you know, listen to the variety of voices in the radio show, and you come to understand how a project like Rhizo15 or even a collaborative venture like RhizoRadio can expand your field of vision, and truly make you feel like you are part of a global experience.

You just have to expect a little lag time. Even friends have to sleep …

Peace (in the zone of time),

Content-Area Whatever

Content in a Box #rhizo15

Dave Cormier asks us to consider what we mean by “content” when it comes to teaching and learning in this latest round of Rhizomatic Learning. As usual, Dave poses what seems to be a straightforward idea (oh, you mean: math, science, social studies and literacy, right?) that suddenly zigs and zags as you dive deeper into it.

Dave writes in his post:

I imagine a lone student, huddled away in a dorm room, reading sanitized facts in the hopes of passing a multiple choice quiz. The content somehow merging with the learning objective and the assessment to create a world where learning is about acquiring truth from the truth box. – Dave Cormier

And so:

Content confusion

For me, the word “content” has long become a rhetorically loaded word, attached to all sorts of professional journals and textbooks and advertising from every publishing company hoping to get either my money for their books or my words in a book review.

Content-area this

Content-area that

Content-area thisandthat


One of the more interesting elements of the Common Core push in the United States has been the shift in how we view the teaching of literacy. It is no longer the domain of just English Language Arts teachers. The Common Core demands that all content-area teachers (there we go again) be teaching reading and writing in the “content area” on a regular basis.

That, I can agree with. You?

What I have interpreted the Common Core shift to mean, and what my colleagues and I have been working on for a few years now, is how to transform literacy instruction beyond my own sixth grade ELA classroom, so that writing and reading practices are embedded in their day in all of their classrooms (math remains tricky when it comes to literacy practice, to be frank, given that the scope-sequence of our district’s math program leaves little room for deep inquiry and exploration … I know … that sucks).

An interesting ancillary is that I, as the ELA teacher, am finding more and more ways to bring social studies and science, and even some math, into our ELA curriculum as well, so that, for example, our video game design unit is science-content-based and an interactive fiction writing unit is steeped in history and archeology, and a poetry lesson (poems for two voices) is centered on math concepts and so on.

Our hope is to avoid those boxes I have above in my comic and spill the learning out. I think that elementary school teachers have more flexibility here in this weaving of subject areas, and even though my sixth grade team follows a “middle school model” of four teachers, four discipline areas, our home in an elementary school affects how we view teaching as a whole, not in parts.

But, I am still thinking about this concept of content, or maybe I am rethinking it. This is why I love Rhizo15. I can’t take anything I know for granted.

Peace (and be content with it),

Writing A Poem, Making Some Music

Wendy showed me this neat site (MusicFont) that turns words into manuscript music, and then generates a MIDI file of the music (then, you probably need to convert the MIDI track into MP3). I could not resist taking a poem I wrote for Terry the other day, transforming the poem into sheet music, and then generating an audio file. The result is rather fascinating, as you can “hear” a musical interpretation of the words of the poem.

This is the poem:

Poem about the Rain

I love how technology has the potential to transform our writing into something slightly askew, allowing us to experience composition from its many angles. Here, you may only hear the music (and it a bit odd, sort of new age classical, as if the rules if composing were being a bit bent) and think, what’s so special about that?


I read the musical notes on the manuscript page, and think about the correlation to the poem, and then hear the music as a sensory companion to the words that I wrote, the rain coming, which were words first inspired by a poem that my friend Terry Elliott wrote.

That’s a pretty cool journey for a poem ….

Peace (in the sound of words),


Comics as Comments

I have a hard time resisting the urge to add some levity in serious discussions, so along with the rich intellectual reflections underway in the Rhizomatic Learning community, I’ve been making comics.

They are not frivolous works or writing, I would argue, but instead, they (hopefully) bring another angle and lens to discussions. You can make a point with comics that sometimes eludes us in writing.

Sometimes, I like to grab a tweet or post from someone and rework it into a comic. Other times, I like to make my own statement. I like to think that adding a playful element from time to time opens up the floor to more people to join in, although I suspect there might be some folks who are “all in” on the serious side and sort of wish the threads remained centered on the philosophical and pedagogical underpinning of rhizomatic learning.


This comic is a reaction to Tania and our RhizoRadio Play. It’s a commentary on how writing in online spaces can lead to unusual things, even a friendly text-hacking of a play that becomes a global collaboration. You just never know.


A few new folks entered the Rhizomatic Learning fold this week, including my friend, Nancy, and even one of my favorite educational thinkers, Will Richardson, and they were wondering where to begin. The boat metaphor showed up in the stream of discussions.

Build a Rhizo Boat

One new person wrote a tweet about “bumping” into the #rhizo15 hashtag, which I found to be funny.

Rhizo comics

Autumm wrote a tweet about this dream of walking the beach with Rhizomatic Learning facilitator Dave. I don’t know if it a was a real dream, or if she was just having some creative fun. But I had this vision of a bunch of #rhizo15 folks building sand castles while Dave and his wife are on vacation.

Rhizo comics

And with the focus on “content” this week and with a post by Susan in mind, about administering the PARCC, I came up with this perspective of students in classrooms where a panicky teacher starts to cram information into their heads ahead of these tests. (Am I guilty? I am.)


Peace (in the share),

Live, from the Web, it’s RhizoRadio

RhizoRadioPlay Promo #rhizo15

We’ve had a soft release of the RhizoRadioPlay, which was a collaborative writing and collaborative performance project for Rhizomatic Learning. (You can read my “behind the scenes” post here) While we made the file “live” over the weekend, we were waiting for Dave to mention it in his newsletter to the entire community before sharing it out (it did get shared out anyway … but we don’t get as mad as Madonna about such things … art should be shared …)

We hope you enjoy the show which we ended up titling “A Multitude of Voices: Mr X. Loses His Battle for Objectivity” … if you are on Soundcloud, please feel free to add comments as a way to annotate the play. We’re always looking for layers of involvement.

Pass the popcorn and the headphones … and hit play.

Peace (on the waves),

The Making of the #Rhizo15 Radio Play, or The Complexities of Collaboration

If you and I were to sit in a room together — say, over a cup of coffee — I bet we could collaborate on something interesting. A story. Or a short video. Or an image. A play. A comic. Maybe even a podcast. We’d bounce ideas off each other and emerge with something interesting, if only a story to tell about what we did. We’d make something to represent our relationship as friends and colleagues and collaborators.

Online communities, if nurtured, can facilitate that impulse to make things, too, and it is truly one of the main elements that has me diving into so many adventures like the current Rhizomatic Learning experience. The collaboration element is the draw for me, as it was with Connected Courses, and as it was with last year’s version of Rhizomatic Learning, and as it has been for DS106, and as it has been for the last two years of the Making Learning Connected MOOC.

So, when Tania started to write a play about the subjective learning/objective experience for the first week of Rhizomatic Learning, and someone suggested her play be put into Google Docs, and then other writers (such as myself) began adding to the play, and then someone suggested this whole piece of collaborative writing be turned into a podcast radio play and then someone said maybe I could coordinate it .. I said, sure, I can do that.

Collaboration is nurtured by the idea of people stepping up and saying, Sure, I can do that. Even if you are not quite aware of what you are taking on.  Even in online communities, where your only interaction is often connected with a tweet, or a status update, or a blog post. If you let it happen, you quickly can build up trust among participants. And that trust allows you to take chances on something unknown. It opens the path for collaboration.

Rhizoplay Serious

True, the complexities of online collaboration can suddenly loom quite large in this kind of undertaking where you find yourself both alone with your computing device and among many collaborators. Thankfully, I was on April break from school this week, and in between family time and other commitments, I was working on pulling together dozens of audio files as people took on parts, recorded their words, and shared them online. I would then grab the audio, pull it into Audacity and try to line things up in a way that would be coherent, and weave a tapestry of voices. I was honored to be put in charge of this task, and took my role rather seriously (well, as serious as I can be) as the curator of the voices and the collective words and spirit of the play. I also realized early on how systematic I needed to be, with organizing files and with laying the voices. Otherwise, I would have slipped into file madness (it may have happened … I’m not saying).


My aim as editor was to help nurture into place a radio play that we would all be proud of, no matter how large or how small a role that one participated — either as a writer, or a reader, or a commenter, or a voice actor. Cheerleader, too. The radio play will become an important artifact of content (the subject of the play) and collaboration, and the possibilities of true rhizomatic learning, in which so many roots were mingled together to produce something quite beautiful. Which is not to say the process wasn’t messy and a bit of mayhem.


Sill, the many hours I spent in editing mode (and I calculated about six to eight hours of messing with audio) was time well spent. Even the music was original … from the underlying soundtrack (I created it in an app called Musyc) that I hoped would musically represent the diversity of voices and add to the tension of the interaction of characters, to the acoustic version of a song written for Rhizo15 earlier. Terry had a great song earmarked for the ending (an Arabic version of Toy Story and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”), but I could not figure out if it would violate copyright if we used it, so we abandoned it. As I told Terry, it probably is best, as Michelle Shocked wrote in one of her songs, to make your own jam anyway.

I think we will all be proud of this collaborative endeavor. There is something very powerful in “voice” and not enough of us are doing podcasting to bring that element to the surface. Here, the multitude of voices adds up to something very unique, a weaving of community that is difficult to explain. You have to hear it. You have to listen. You have to imagine. Terry had a great idea that we could not pull off: he wanted all the voice actors to gather together in a Google Hangout, and read the play live on the air, online. Then, we could strip the audio from the video, and use that as a podcast. This is where geography played against us. Too many timezones. It was a great idea that never came to fruition.

Dave Cormier, the facilitator of Rhizomatic Learning, will showcase the premiere of the radio play — A Multitude of Voices: Mr. X Loses His Battle for Objectivity — in his next post and message to the entire #rhizo15 community, probably sometime later today, or very soon (maybe even by the time you read this post). We hope you will sit back, enjoy the multitude of voices, and wonder at the collaboration. If you were one of the many who participated, then I want to extend a warm “thank you” for your contributions. It was lovely to play with our voices and our words.

Until the release of the play itself, which I will embed here another day in its full glory, I have sprinkled some promotional media for the play in this blog post. A few of us were having fun making media for the virtual promotional tour in the last few days to spark interest in the play and in the nature of collaboration. Keep an eye on Dave, and …. enjoy the show.

Peace (in the collaboration),

The Struggles of MultiModal Assessment Design

I had an interesting conversation with a doctoral student who is doing her work on how teachers are evaluating and assessing student digital writing projects. I am part of her study (well, as a teacher, I am participating) and yesterday, we had a 90 minute chat about assessing digital work. Interestingly, this connected in my head to the inquiry going on at Rhizomatic Learning this week, too.

During our time, she asked me a lot of questions and I admit, I struggled to explain how I best assess digital writing projects that my sixth graders make. Even after co-editing a book on assessment of digital writing (Teaching The New Writing), and even after years of bringing various projects into my classroom to push at the notions of what it means to write in a digital age …. I am often as lost as I have ever been.

In particular, yesterday, I did a very close look at a video game design project and “talked through” what I was seeing, using my own project indicator sheet as my guide.

It had been some time since I had played this game called Into An Animal Cell (you can play it, too) , and I remained impressed by the work of this student. Talking the game through with my assessment lens on as I played it was another way to examine the moves of the student around game design, story narrative and the use of science as the underpinning theme.

But I openly admitted to her: grading/assessing something that has many modalities — here, for example, game design, science concept, story narrative, science vocabulary, etc. — is something I continue to grapple with on so many levels. If I get too specific, then I lose the flavor of the whole. Too general, as I am in the assessment tool for this project, and it is nearly meaningless. And then there is the element of “newness” here — I’m lucky if one of two of my 80-odd students ever designed and published a video game. Assessing the newness of the skill tugs in contrast to the learning experience I want them to have in the end, which is a design mentality and expanded notion of story narrative flow in a multimodal space.

I still seek (and yet, have not yet found) the balance here to create an assessment that will do what an assessment tool is designed to do: guide the student to make improvements so that they can further their work and learn from the experience. I still feel as if I am designing assessment tools to give them a grade. The tool is for me more than for them, as a way for me to justify why we are making video games.

I need to turn that whole perspective on its head. I need to better figure out how to create something more meaningful for my students. I’m still struggling with this. As it turns out, so are many others, as evidenced by some of this researcher’s other interviewees.

Peace (in the pondering),